Something is rotten in the state of Armello. Sadly for political stability in this literal animal kingdom, that thing is their lion king himself, the mighty monarch who brought peace between the long-feuding animal clans. (This is no small feat; one imagines the Wolf Clan and the Rabbit Clan would have many issues to work through over the negotiation table.)
The king is infected by the Rot, a corrupting, maddening influence that is also an inevitable death sentence. The clans grieve to see their noble ruler twisted to madness and evil – for about five seconds, because there’s no time to waste when you’re plotting to secure a soon-to-be vacant throne.
In Aussie studio League of Geek’s debut and crowdfunding success story Armello, players take the role of a hero of one of the kingdom’s four main clans – Wolf and Rabbit are joined by Rat and Bear – and set out to secure a royal legacy. The game is best described as a digital RPG board game, and it’s almost surprising to learn that no cardboard and plastic bits version preceded it.
A smallish game area representing the kingdom of Armello is divided into randomised hex tiles of various terrain types, a night and day cycle rolls over the land and at its centre, and the corrupted king – dying a little every morning – rules from his castle. Outside the walls, four heroes (any combination of human and AI) vie to become his successor as they adventure around the kingdom, trying to decide on their best strategy to claim the throne.
Each of the game’s eight heroes offers a special ability and balanced strengths in the game’s primary statistics: fight (numbers of attack and defence dice), body (health), wit (which determines how large one’s hand of cards can be), and spirit (magic points).
Beginning in their clan grounds, each hero uses action points to move about the world and draw cards into their hand from amongst three different decks; equipment, spells, and perils (traps and other hindrances for opposition players). Each player can play as many cards per turn as their gold or spell points will allow, and many cards can even be put into play when other heroes are taking their turn.
Armello also drops a choice of quests onto each player whenever they don’t have an active one on the go. Each quest will normally improve a selected primary stat by one when completed, and also offer an optional chance to claim an extra reward or suffer a setback. When not questing, heroes can explore ruins and fight Banes, the creatures of the Rot that emerge from them. Heroes may also secure villages to provide gold for deploying cards, or pick fights with the king’s guards and their fellow would-be monarchs.
There are several different methods for claiming the throne. A tough player can simply look to beat the king in a straight-up brawl. Another way is to collect four objects called Spirit Stones and use them banish the corrupted monarch. Elsewhere, should the king succumb to the Rot, the player with the most prestige points (earned by completing quests and defeating enemies) will ascend the throne.
Finally, you can give in to the power of the dark side by using various ghoulish abilities to increase your hero’s own Rot stat score, before out-corrupting the king in battle to rule over Armello as a new Lord of Darkness (but what would your Mum think?).
These are only the beginnings of the game’s various complications. Equipment modifies dice and abilities, some animals fight better during the night or day, spells harm, heal, or teleport rivals across the map, the king enforces new decrees across the land every morning, cards from your hand can be sacrificed to secure the dice symbol you desperately need in the next roll, enemy heroes disappear from the board in stealth mode, and so on.
Consequently, there are a lot of tactics to learn and the education process is brutal, as the small map pushes heroes into frequent conflict. Death and a respawn back in the clan grounds is frequent, with both combatants often killed in the same dust-up. Fortunately a thorough, well-executed tutorial is on-hand to guide you carefully through the game’s various systems and introduce the setting of the game world.
Mention must be made of this setting, which is almost the game’s primary attraction. Armello basically looks and feels as if someone picked up the anthropomorphic animals from Disney’s Robin Hood and dropped them into a universe that’s closer to Game of Thrones. The game is simply pretty – every card in the game features some gorgeous bit of animated art – and the opening cinematic that introduces the characters and universe in particular sets the scene. In fact, all the worldbuilding-through-art is so interesting and stimulating to look at, it almost becomes a shame that there’s not more of it, as it feels like there are more Armello stories waiting to be told than can emerge through this game concept alone.
Like all games involving random card draws and dice, luck has a part to play in Armello. In particular, entry to the king’s castle to attempt a winning confrontation always requires a higher-odds sort of dice roll, and it’s not that uncommon to have all you need for victory, only to be stuck outside the walls for several turns, unable to enter and deliver the final blow. While this can certainly get old, there are of course swings and roundabouts, so today’s mouse-smashing frustration might well be tomorrow’s unlikely last-minute victory.
Such triumphs are all the more satisfying in multiplayer, which plays very similarly to an AI-populated game (with some sensible time limits added to various parts of the turn process), but with craftier opponents, who you can offer a preset “bad luck” communique to as you sneak the throne out from under their noses.
A slower-paced wee gem that not only invents a pretty decent board game out of nothing, but also generally maximises the advantages of making that board game a digital one, Armello is a lovingly crafted debut that hints at good things to come for League of Geeks.